Yesterday I suggested that there are unprofitable ways for us to read the Bible. I also dangled a suggested from Martin Thornton as a way to read the Bible devotionally. Before we dig into that method, I think it would be good to lay a bit of groundwork.
First, there is worth in reading the Bible in large doses and reading it cover to cover is not bad. It is actually essential that we begin to grasp the overall narrative and flow of the Scriptures. Hebrews makes more sense when we know Leviticus. The Gospels assume we know Isaiah and the other prophets. The Psalms assume we know the story of the Exodus and the kings.
This is the first stage of Scripture reading. We need to get to know the key stories and the key characters. At this point, we largely read the Bible as a story or as a collection of stories. Without this familiarity with the book as a whole, it is difficult to move beyond.
Second, and often concurrently, we begin to see parts of the Scriptures as resources for our prayer. The Psalms are the most obvious place this happens, but there are prayers and benedictions scattered throughout. The Lord’s prayer, the prayer of the tax collector in the temple, the cry of Bartimaeus — all of these we start to make our own. We identify with certain Psalms and they become our own words spoken to the Father.
From here, we start to enter more dangerous ground and we need the guidance of the Creeds and the Church to keep us from error. This is where we start trying to figure stuff out.
We may have an issue or a question we wish to answer. “What does the Bible say about evolution?” “Should I be a vegetarian?” “What day of the week is the Sabbath?” “What does the Bible teach about divorce?” There are thousands of such questions that we may entertain. The classic evangelical method to address such questions is the “cabin method.”
The cabin method is this: I take myself, my Bible, and a notebook to a cabin in the woods, where I read the entire Bible, noting everything it says about whatever topic has grabbed my attention. Then I summarize the teaching of all the passages I have found and there I have it.
While this method is not wholly wrong, it can lead to error and arrogance. In pursuing truth in this fashion, I am going off by myself instead of into the company of the saints. I am not reading the Church Fathers, the Creeds, the confessions, and the teaching of the Church. I may be praying, but not necessarily. This is blunt-force truth hunting.
Another way we often approach Scripture is in a group Bible study. We meet together, drinking coffee and eating cookies while we read a chapter or part of a chapter of a book of the Bible. Then we sit around discussing what it means to us. Can we please quit calling this study? Instead of studying, we are pooling our biases, ignorance, and feelings. There is generally no authority to resolve dissent other than the strongest personality in the group. This may be fine for the novel of the month book club, but our sacred texts deserve better than this.
There are other unfruitful ways to approach Scripture, but these seem to be some of the main temptations. However, as noted above, familiarity with the Scriptures is foundational to any further study or use. Please don’t let any of this stop you from reading the Bible. Tomorrow we’ll look at some possible alternatives to the cabin method and the group “study.”